Emily Elizabeth Dickinson
(December 10, 1830 – May
15, 1886) was an American poet. Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, to a successful family with strong community ties,
she lived a mostly introverted and reclusive life.
studied at the Amherst
Academy for seven years in her youth, she spent a short
time at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary before returning to her family's house in
Thought of as an eccentric by the locals, she
became known for her penchant for white clothing and her reluctance
to greet guests or, later in life, even leave her room. Most of her
friendships were therefore carried out by correspondence.
Although Dickinson was a prolific private poet, fewer than a dozen
of her nearly eighteen hundred poems were published during her
lifetime. The work that was published during her lifetime was
usually altered significantly by the publishers to fit the
conventional poetic rules of the time. Dickinson's poems are unique
for the era in which she wrote; they contain short lines, typically
lack titles, and often use slant rhyme
well as unconventional capitalization and punctuation. Many of her
poems deal with themes of death and immortality, two recurring
topics in letters to her friends.
Although most of her acquaintances were probably aware of
Dickinson's writing, it was not until after her death in 1886—when
Lavinia, Emily's younger sister, discovered her cache of poems—that
the breadth of Dickinson's work became apparent. Her first
collection of poetry was published in 1890 by personal
, both of whom heavily edited the content. A
complete and mostly unaltered collection of her poetry became
available for the first time in 1955 when The Poems of Emily
was published by scholar Thomas H. Johnson. Despite
unfavorable reviews and skepticism of her literary prowess during
the late 19th and early 20th century, critics now consider
Dickinson to be a major American poet.
Family and early childhood
A drawing of the young Emily
Dickinson, age nine.
Elizabeth Dickinson was born at the family's
homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts, on December 10, 1830, into a prominent, but not
It was made from a portrait featuring Emily, Austin and
Lavinia as children.
Two hundred years earlier, the Dickinsons
had arrived in the New World—in the Puritan
prospered. Emily Dickinson's paternal grandfather,
Samuel Dickinson, had almost single-handedly founded Amherst College.
In 1813 he built the homestead, a large
mansion on the town's Main Street, that became the focus of
Dickinson family life for the better part of a century. Samuel
Dickinson's eldest son, Edward
treasurer of Amherst College for nearly forty years, served
numerous terms as a State Legislator, and represented the Hampshire
district in the United States
. On May 6, 1828, he married Emily Norcross
They had three children:
By all accounts, young Emily was a well-behaved girl. On an
extended visit to Monson when she was two, Emily's Aunt Lavinia
described Emily as "perfectly well & contented—She is a very
good child & but little trouble." Emily's aunt also noted the
girl's affinity for music and her particular talent for the piano,
which she called "the moosic
Dickinson attended primary school in a two-story building on
Pleasant Street. Her education was "ambitiously classical for a
Victorian girl". Her father wanted his children well-educated and
he followed their progress even while away on business. When Emily
was seven, he wrote home, reminding his children to "keep school,
and learn, so as to tell me, when I come home, how many new things
you have learned". While Emily consistently described her father in
a warm manner, her correspondence suggests that her mother was
regularly cold and aloof. In a letter to a confidante, Emily wrote
she "always ran Home to Awe [Austin] when a child, if anything
befell me. He was an awful Mother, but I liked him better than
On September 7, 1840, Dickinson and her sister Lavinia started
together at Amherst Academy, a former boys' school that had opened
to female students just two years earlier. At about the same time,
her father purchased a house on North Pleasant Street. Emily's
brother Austin later described this large new home as the "mansion"
over which he and Emily presided as "lord and lady" while their
parents were absent. The house overlooked Amherst's burial ground,
described by one local minister as treeless and "forbidding".
|They shut me up in Prose –
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet –
Because they liked me "still" –
Still! Could themself have peeped –
And seen my Brain – go round –
They might as wise have lodged a Bird
For Treason – in the Pound –
|Emily Dickinson, c.
Dickinson spent seven years at the Academy, taking classes in
and classical literature
, "mental philosophy," and arithmetic
. She had a few terms off due to
illness: the longest absence was in 1845–1846, when she was only
enrolled for eleven weeks.
Dickinson was troubled from a young age by the "deepening menace"
of death, especially the deaths of those who were close to her.
When Sophia Holland, her second cousin and a close friend, grew ill
and died in April, 1844, Emily
was traumatized. Recalling the incident two years later, Emily
wrote that "it seemed to me I should die too if I could not be
permitted to watch over her or even look at her face." She became so
melancholic that her parents sent her to stay with family in
Boston to recover.
With her health and spirits
restored, she soon returned to Amherst Academy to continue her
studies. During this period, she first met people who were to
become lifelong friends and correspondents, such as Abiah Root,
Abby Wood, Jane Humphrey, and Susan Huntington Gilbert (who later
married Emily's brother Austin).
In 1845, a religious revival
took place in Amherst, resulting in 46 confessions of faith
peers. Dickinson wrote to a friend the following year: "I never
enjoyed such perfect peace and happiness as the short time in which
I felt I had found my savior." She went on to say that it was her
"greatest pleasure to commune alone with the great God & to
feel that he would listen to my prayers". The experience did not
last: Dickinson never made a formal declaration of faith and
attended services regularly for only a few years. After her
church-going ended, about 1852, she wrote a poem opening: "Some
keep the Sabbath going to Church – / I keep it, staying at
During the last year of her stay at the Academy, Emily became
friendly with Leonard Humphrey, its popular new young principal.
finishing her final term at the Academy on August 10, 1847,
Dickinson began attending Mary Lyon's
Female Seminary (which later became Mount Holyoke
College) in South Hadley, about ten miles (16 km) from Amherst.
She was at the seminary for only ten months. Although she liked the
girls at Holyoke, Dickinson made no lasting friendships there. The
explanations for her brief stay at Holyoke differ considerably:
either she was in poor health, her father wanted to have her at
home, she rebelled against the evangelical fervor present at the
school, she disliked the discipline-minded teachers, or she was
simply homesick. Whatever the specific reason for leaving Holyoke,
her brother Austin appeared on March 25, 1848, to "bring [her] home
at all events". Back in Amherst, Dickinson occupied her time with
household activities. She took up baking for the family and enjoyed
attending local events and activities in the budding college
Early influences and writing
When she was eighteen, Dickinson's family befriended a young
attorney by the name of Benjamin Franklin Newton. According to a
letter written by Dickinson after Newton's death, he had been "with
my Father two years, before going to Worcester – in pursuing his
studies, and was much in our family." Although their relationship
was probably not romantic, Newton was a formative influence and
would become the second in a series of older men (after Humphrey)
that Dickinson referred to, variously, as her tutor, preceptor or
Newton likely introduced her to the writings of William Wordsworth
, and his gift to her
of Ralph Waldo Emerson
book of collected poems had a liberating effect. She wrote later
that he, "whose name my Father's Law Student taught me, has touched
the secret Spring". Newton held her in high regard, believing in
and recognizing her as a poet. When he was dying of tuberculosis
, he wrote to her, saying that he
would like to live until she achieved the greatness he foresaw.
Biographers believe that Dickinson's statement of 1862—"When a
little Girl, I had a friend, who taught me Immortality – but
venturing too near, himself – he never returned"—refers to
Dickinson was familiar not only with the Bible
but also with contemporary popular literature. She was probably
influenced by Lydia Maria Child
Letters from New York,
another gift from Newton (after
reading it, she enthused "This then is a book! And there are more
of them!"). Her brother smuggled a copy of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
into the house for her (because her father might
disapprove) and a friend lent her Charlotte Brontë
's Jane Eyre
in late 1849. Jane Eyre'
influence cannot be measured, but when Dickinson acquired her first
and only dog, a Newfoundland
named him "Carlo" after the character St. John Rivers' dog.
was also a
potent influence in her life. Referring to his plays, she wrote to
one friend "Why clasp any hand but this?" and to another, "Why is
any other book needed?"
Adulthood and seclusion
In early 1850 Dickinson wrote that "Amherst is alive with fun this
winter ... Oh, a very great town this is!" Her high spirits soon
turned to melancholy after another untimely death. The Amherst
Academy principal, Leonard Humphrey, died suddenly of "brain
congestion" at age 25. Two years after his death, she revealed to
her friend Abiah Root the extent of her depression: "... some
of my friends are gone, and some of my friends are sleeping –
sleeping the churchyard sleep – the hour of evening is sad – it was
once my study hour – my master has gone to rest, and the open leaf
of the book, and the scholar at school alone
, make the
tears come, and I cannot brush them away; I would not if I could,
for they are the only tribute I can pay the departed
During the 1850s, Emily's strongest and most affectionate
relationship was with Susan Gilbert. Emily eventually sent her over
three hundred letters, more than to any other correspondent, over
the course of their friendship. Her missives typically dealt with
demands for Sue's affection and the fear of unrequited admiration,
but because Sue was often aloof and disagreeable, Emily was
continually hurt by what was mostly a tempestuous friendship. Sue
was nevertheless supportive of the poet, playing the role of "most
beloved friend, influence, muse, and adviser whose editorial
suggestions Dickinson sometimes followed, Susan played a primary
role in Emily's creative processes." Sue married Austin in 1856
after a four-year courtship, although their marriage was not a
happy one. Edward Dickinson built a house for him and Sue called
, which stood on the west side of the
Until 1855, Dickinson had not strayed far from Amherst. That
spring, accompanied by her mother and sister, she took one of her
longest and farthest trips away from home. First, they spent
three weeks in Washington, where her father was representing Massachusetts in
Congress. Then they went to
Philadelphia for two weeks to visit family.
Philadelphia, she met Charles Wadsworth, a famous minister of the
Arch Street Presbyterian Church, with whom she forged a strong
friendship which lasted until his death in 1882. Despite only seeing
him twice after 1855 (he moved to San
Francisco in 1862), she variously referred to him as "my
Philadelphia", "my Clergyman", "my dearest earthly friend" and "my
Shepherd from 'Little Girl'hood".
From the mid-1850s, Emily's mother became effectively bedridden
with various chronic illnesses until her death in 1882. Writing to
a friend in summer 1858, Emily said that she would visit if she
could leave "home, or mother. I do not go out at all, lest father
will come and miss me, or miss some little act, which I might
forget, should I run away – Mother is much as usual. I Know not
what to hope of her". As her mother continued to decline,
Dickinson's domestic responsibilities weighed heavier upon her and
she confined herself within the Homestead. Forty years later,
Lavinia stated that because their mother was chronically ill, one
of the daughters had to remain always with her. Emily took this
role as her own, and "finding the life with her books and nature so
congenial, continued to live it".
Withdrawing more and more from the outside world, Emily began in
the summer of 1858 what would be her lasting legacy. Reviewing
poems she had written previously, she began making clean copies of
her work, assembling carefully pieced-together manuscript books.
The forty fascicles
she created from
1858 through 1865 eventually held nearly eight hundred poems. No
one was aware of the existence of these books until after her
In the late 1850s, the Dickinsons befriended Samuel Bowles
, the owner and
editor-in-chief of the Springfield Republican
, and his
wife, Mary. They visited the Dickinsons regularly for years to
come. During this time Emily sent him over three dozen letters and
nearly fifty poems. Their friendship brought out some of her most
intense writing and Bowles published a few of her poems in his
journal. It was from 1858 to 1861 that Dickinson is believed to
have written a trio of letters that have been called "The Master
Letters". These three letters, drafted to an unknown man simply
referred to as "Master", continue to be the subject of speculation
and contention amongst scholars.
The first half of the 1860s, after she had largely withdrawn from
social life, proved to be Dickinson's most productive writing
Is "my Verse ... alive?"
In April 1862, Thomas
, a literary critic, radical abolitionist
, and ex-minister, wrote a lead
piece for The Atlantic
entitled, "Letter to a Young Contributor".
Higginson's essay, in which he urged aspiring writers to "charge
your style with life", contained practical advice for those wishing
to break into print. Seeking literary guidance that no one close to
her could provide, Dickinson sent him a letter which read in
The letter was unsigned, but she had included her name on a card
and enclosed it in an envelope, along with four of her poems. He
praised her work but suggested that she delay publishing until she
had written longer, being unaware that she had already appeared in
print. She assured him that publishing was as foreign to her "as
Firmament to Fin", but also proposed that "If fame belonged to me,
I could not escape her".
Dickinson delighted in dramatic self-characterization and mystery
in her letters to Higginson. She said of herself, "I am small, like
the wren, and my hair is bold, like the chestnut bur, and my eyes
like the sherry in the glass that the guest leaves." She stressed
her solitary nature, stating that her only real companions were the
hills, the sundown, and her dog, Carlo. She also mentioned that
whereas her mother did not "care for Thought", her father bought
her books, but begged her "not to read them – because he fears they
joggle the Mind". Dickinson valued his advice, going from calling
him "Mr. Higginson" to "Dear friend" as well as signing her
letters, "Your Gnome" and "Your Scholar". His interest in her work
certainly provided great moral support; many years later, Dickinson
told Higginson that he had saved her life in 1862. They
corresponded until her death.
The woman in white
In direct opposition to the immense productivity that she displayed
in the early 1860s, Dickinson wrote fewer poems in 1866. Beset with
personal loss as well as loss of domestic help, it is possible that
Dickinson was too overcome to keep up her previous level of
writing. Carlo died during this time after providing sixteen years
of companionship; Dickinson never owned another dog. Although the
household servant of nine years had married and left the Homestead
that same year, it was not until 1869 that her family brought in a
permanent household servant to replace the old one. Emily once
again was responsible for chores, including the baking, at which
|A solemn thing – it was – I said
A Woman – White – to be –
And wear – if God should count me fit –
Her blameless mystery –
|Emily Dickinson, c.
Around this time, Dickinson's behavior began to change. She did not
leave the Homestead unless it was absolutely necessary and as early
as 1867, she began to talk to visitors from the other side of a
door rather than speaking to them face to face. She acquired local
notoriety; she was rarely seen, and when she was, she was usually
clothed in white. Dickinson's one surviving article of clothing is
a white cotton dress, possibly sewn circa 1878–1882. Few of the
locals who exchanged messages with Dickinson during her last
fifteen years ever saw her in person. Austin and his family began
to protect Emily's privacy, deciding that she was not to be a
subject of discussion with outsiders. Despite her physical
seclusion, however, Dickinson was socially active and expressive
through what makes up two-thirds of her surviving notes and
letters. When visitors came to either the Homestead or the
Evergreens, she would often leave or send over small gifts of poems
or flowers. Dickinson also had a good rapport with the children in
her life. Mattie Dickinson, the second child of Austin and Sue,
later said that "Aunt Emily stood for indulgence.
MacGregor (Mac) Jenkins, the son of family friends who later wrote
a short article in 1891 called "A Child's Recollection of Emily
Dickinson", thought of her as always offering support to the
When Higginson urged her to come to Boston in 1868 so that they
could formally meet for the first time, she declined, writing:
"Could it please your convenience to come so far as Amherst I
should be very glad, but I do not cross my Father's ground to any
House or town". It was not until he came to Amherst in 1870 that
they met. Later he referred to her, in the most detailed and vivid
physical account of her on record, as "a little plain woman with
two smooth bands of reddish hair ... in a very plain &
exquisitely clean white pique & a blue net worsted shawl." He
also felt that he never was "with any one who drained my nerve
power so much. Without touching her, she drew from me. I am glad
not to live near her."
Posies and poesies
Scholar Judith Farr notes that Dickinson, during her lifetime, "was
known more widely as a gardener, perhaps, than as a poet".
Dickinson studied botany from the age of nine and, along with her
sister, tended the garden at Homestead. During her lifetime, she
assembled a collection of pressed plants in a sixty-six page
. It contained 424
pressed flower specimens that she collected, classified, and
labeled using the Linnaean
The Homestead garden was well-known and admired locally in its
time. It has not survived, and Dickinson kept no garden notebooks
or plant lists, but a clear impression can be formed from the
letters and recollections of friends and family. Her niece, Martha
Dickinson Bianchi, remembered "carpets of lily-of-the-valley
, platoons of sweetpeas
, enough in May to give all the
bees of summer dyspepsia. There were ribbons of peony
hedges and drifts of daffodils
in season, marigolds
to distraction—-a butterfly utopia".
particular, Dickinson cultivated scented exotic flowers, writing
that she "could inhabit the Spice Isles merely by crossing the dining room to the
conservatory, where the plants hang in baskets".
would often send her friends bunches of flowers with verses
attached, but "they valued the posy more than the poetry".
On June 16, 1874, while in Boston, Edward Dickinson suffered a
stroke and died. When the simple funeral was held in the
Homestead's entrance hall, Emily stayed in her room with the door
cracked open. Neither did she attend the memorial service on June
28. She wrote to Higginson that her father's "Heart was pure and
terrible and I think no other like it exists." A year later, on
June 15, 1875, Emily's mother also suffered a stroke, which
produced a partial lateral paralysis
impaired memory. Lamenting her mother's increasing physical as well
as mental demands, Emily wrote that "Home is so far from
Phillips Lord, an elderly judge on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial
Court from Salem, in 1872 or 1873 became an acquaintance of
|Though the great Waters sleep,
That they are still the Deep,
We cannot doubt –
No vacillating God
Ignited this Abode
To put it out –
|Emily Dickinson, c.
After the death of Lord's wife in 1877, his
friendship with Dickinson probably became a late-life romance,
though as their letters were destroyed, this is surmise. Dickinson
found a kindred soul in Lord, especially in terms of shared
literary interests; the few letters which survived contain multiple
quotations of Shakespeare
work, including the plays Othello
Antony and Cleopatra
and King Lear
. In 1880 he gave her Cowden
Clarke's Complete Concordance to Shakespeare
Dickinson wrote that "While others go to Church, I go to mine, for
are you not my Church, and have we not a Hymn that no one knows but
us?" She referred to him as "My lovely Salem" and they wrote to
each other religiously every Sunday. Dickinson looked forward to
this day greatly; a surviving fragment of a letter written by her
states that "Tuesday is a deeply depressed Day".
After being critically ill for several years, Judge Lord died in
March 1884. Dickinson referred to him as "our latest Lost". Two
years before this, on April 1, 1882, Dickinson's "Shepherd from
'Little Girl'hood", Charles Wadsworth, also had died after a long
Decline and death
Although she continued to write in her last years, Dickinson
stopped editing and organizing her poems. She also exacted a
promise from her sister Lavinia to burn her papers. Lavinia, who
also never married, remained at the Homestead until her own death
Emily Dickinson's tombstone in the
The 1880s were a difficult time for the remaining Dickinsons.
Irreconcilably alienated from his wife, Austin fell in love in 1882
with Mabel Loomis Todd
, an Amherst
College faculty wife who had recently moved to the area. Todd never
met Dickinson but was intrigued by her, referring to her as "a lady
whom the people call the Myth
". Austin distanced himself
from his family as his affair continued and his wife became sick
with grief. Dickinson's mother died on November 14, 1882. Five
weeks later, Dickinson wrote "We were never intimate ... while she
was our Mother – but Mines in the same Ground meet by tunneling and
when she became our Child, the Affection came." The next year,
Austin and Sue's third and youngest child, Gilbert—Emily's
favorite—died of typhoid fever.
As death succeeded death, Dickinson found her world upended. In the
fall of 1884, she wrote that "The Dyings have been too deep for me,
and before I could raise my Heart from one, another has come." That
summer she had seen "a great darkness coming" and fainted while
baking in the kitchen. She remained unconscious late into the night
and weeks of ill health followed. On November 30, 1885, her
feebleness and other symptoms were so worrying that Austin canceled
a trip to Boston. She was confined to her bed for a few months, but
managed to send a final burst of letters in the spring. What is
thought to be her last letter was sent to her cousins, Louise and
Frances Norcross, and simply read: "Little Cousins, Called Back.
Emily". On May 15, 1886, after several days of worsening symptoms,
Emily Dickinson died at the age of 55. Austin wrote in his diary
that "the day was awful ... she ceased to breathe that terrible
breathing just before the [afternoon] whistle sounded for six."
Dickinson's chief physician gave the cause of death as Bright's disease
and its duration as two
and a half years.
Dickinson was buried, laid in a white coffin with vanilla-scented heliotrope
Lady's Slipper orchid
, and a "knot of blue field violets
" placed about it. The funeral service,
held in the Homestead's library, was simple and short; Higginson,
who had only met her twice, read "No Coward Soul Is Mine", a poem
by Emily Brontë
that had been a
favorite of Dickinson's. At Dickinson's request, her "coffin [was]
not driven but carried through fields of buttercups" for burial in
the family plot at West Cemetery on Triangle Street.
Despite Dickinson's prolific writing, fewer than a dozen of her
poems were published during her lifetime. After her younger sister
Lavinia discovered the collection of nearly eighteen hundred poems,
Dickinson's first volume was published four years after her death.
Until the 1955 publication of Dickinson's Complete Poems
by Thomas H. Johnson, her poetry was considerably edited and
altered from their manuscript versions. Since 1890 Dickinson has
remained continuously in print.
"Safe in their Alabaster Chambers –,"
entitled "The Sleeping," as it was published in the Springfield
A few of Dickinson's poems appeared in Samuel Bowles'
between 1858 and 1868. They were
published anonymously and heavily edited, with conventionalized
punctuation and formal titles. The first poem, "Nobody knows this
little rose", may have been published without Dickinson's
permission. The Republican
also published "A narrow Fellow
in the Grass" as "The Snake"; "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers –"
as "The Sleeping"; and "Blazing in the Gold and quenching in
Purple" as "Sunset". The poem "I taste a liquor never brewed –" is
an example of the edited versions; the last two lines in the first
stanza were completely rewritten for the sake of conventional
In 1864, several poems were altered and published in Drum
, to raise funds for medical care for Union soldiers in
. Another appeared in
April 1864 in the Brooklyn Daily Union
In the 1870s, Higginson
showed Dickinson's poems
to Helen Hunt Jackson
, who had
coincidentally been at the Academy with Dickinson when they were
girls. Jackson was deeply involved in the publishing world, and
managed to convince Dickinson to publish her poem "Success is
counted sweetest" anonymously in a volume called A Masque of
. The poem, however, was altered to agree with
contemporary taste. It was the last poem published during
After Dickinson's death, Lavinia Dickinson kept her promise and
burned most of the poet's correspondence. Significantly though,
Dickinson had left no instructions about the forty notebooks and
loose sheets gathered in a locked chest. Lavinia recognized the
poems' worth and became obsessed with seeing them published. She
turned first to her brother's wife and then to Mabel Loomis Todd,
her brother's mistress, for assistance. A feud ensued, with the
manuscripts divided between the Todd and Dickinson houses,
preventing complete publication of Dickinson's poetry for more than
half a century.
Cover of the first edition of
, published in 1890
The first volume of Dickinson's Poems,
edited jointly by
Mabel Loomis Todd and T. W. Higginson, appeared in November 1890.
Although Todd claimed that only essential changes were made, the
poems were extensively edited to match punctuation and
capitalization to late 19th-century standards, with occasional
rewordings to reduce Dickinson's obliquity. The first 115-poem
volume was a critical and financial success, going through eleven
printings in two years. Poems: Second Series
1891, running to five editions by 1893; a third series appeared in
1896. One reviewer, in 1892, wrote: "The world will not rest
satisfied till every scrap of her writings, letters as well as
literature, has been published". Two years later, two volumes of
Dickinson's letters, heavily edited, appeared. In parallel, Susan
Dickinson placed a few of Dickinson's poems in literary magazines
such as Scribner's
and The Independent
Between 1914 and 1929, Dickinson's niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi,
published a new series of collections, including many previously
unpublished poems, with similarly normalized punctuation and
capitalization. Other volumes edited by Todd and Bianchi followed
through the 1930s, gradually making more previously unpublished
The first scholarly publication came in 1955 with a complete new
three-volume set edited by Thomas H. Johnson. It formed the basis
of all later Dickinson scholarship. For the first time, the poems
were printed very nearly as Dickinson had left them in her
manuscripts. They were untitled, only numbered in an approximate
chronological sequence, strewn with dashes and irregularly
capitalized, and often extremely elliptical
in their language. Three years
later, Johnson edited and published, along with Theodora Ward, a
complete collection of Dickinson's letters.
- See: Emily Dickinson at
Wikisource for complete poetic works
Dickinson's poems generally fall into three distinct periods, the
works in each period having certain general characters in common.
- Pre-1861. These are often conventional and
sentimental in nature.
Thomas H. Johnson, who later published The Poems of Emily
Dickinson, was able to date only five of Dickinson's poems
before 1858. Two of these are mock valentines done in an ornate and
humorous style, and two others are conventional lyrics, one of
which is about missing her brother Austin. The fifth poem, which
begins "I have a Bird in spring", conveys her grief over the feared
loss of friendship and was sent to her friend Sue Gilbert.
- 1861–1865. This was her most creative
period—these poems are more vigorous and emotional. Johnson
estimated that she composed 86 poems in 1861, 366 in 1862, 141 in
1863, and 174 in 1864. He also believed that this is when she fully
developed her themes of life and death.
- Post-1866. It is estimated that two-thirds of
the entire body of her poetry was written before this year.
Structure and syntax
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Dickinson's handwritten manuscript of her poem "Wild Nights –
The extensive use of dashes
manuscripts, and the idiosyncratic
vocabulary and imagery, combine
to create a body of work that is "far more various in its styles
and forms than is commonly supposed". She did not write in
traditional iambic pentameter
convention of English-speaking poetry for centuries), and did not
even use a five-foot
line. Her line
lengths vary from four syllables or two feet to often eight
syllables or four feet. Her frequent use of approximate or slant rhyme
attracted attention since her work
first appeared in print. Her poems typically begin with a
declaration or definition in the first line ("The fact that Earth
is Heaven"), which is followed by a metaphorical change of the
original premise in the second line ("Whether Heaven is Heaven or
not"). Dickinson's poems can easily be set to music because of the
frequent use of rhyme and free verse
Written for the most part in common
or ballad-meter, they can also be set to songs that use
the same alternating lines of iambic
and iambic trimeter
(Familiar examples of such songs are O Little Town of
). Dickinson scholar Anthony Hecht finds resonances
not only with songs but also with psalms
, citing the following example: "Who
is the East? / The Yellow Man / Who may be Purple if he
can / That carries the Sun. / Who is the West? / The
Purple Man / Who may be Yellow if He can / That lets Him
Late 20th-century scholars are "deeply interested" by Dickinson's
highly individual use of punctuation and lineation (line lengths
and line breaks). Following the publication of one of the few poems
that appeared in her lifetime – "A narrow Fellow in the Grass",
published as "The Snake" in the Republican
complained that the edited punctuation (an added comma and a full
stop substitution for the original dash) altered the meaning of the
As Farr points out, "snakes instantly notice you"; Dickinson's
version captures the "breathless immediacy" of the encounter; and
s punctuation renders "her lines more
commonplace". With the increasingly close focus on Dickinson's
structures and syntax has come a growing appreciation that they are
"aesthetically based". Although Johnson's landmark 1955 edition of
poems was relatively unaltered from the original, later scholars
critiqued it for deviating from the style and layout of Dickinson's
manuscripts. Meaningful distinctions, these scholars assert, can be
drawn from varying lengths and angles of dash, and differing
arrangements of text on the page. Several volumes have attempted to
render Dickinson's handwritten dashes using many typographic
symbols of varying length and angle. R. W. Franklin's 1998 variorum
edition of the poems provided alternate wordings to those chosen by
Johnson, in a more limited editorial intervention. Franklin also
used typeset dashes of varying length to approximate the
manuscripts' dashes more closely.
Dickinson left no formal statement of her aesthetic intentions and,
because of the variety of her themes, her work does not fit
conveniently into any one genre. She has been regarded, alongside
(whose poems Dickinson
admired), as a Transcendentalist
However, Farr disagrees with this analysis saying that Dickinson's
"relentlessly measuring mind ... deflates the airy elevation of the
Transcendental". Apart from the major themes discussed below,
Dickinson's poetry frequently uses humor, puns, irony
- Flowers and gardens. Farr notes that
Dickinson's "poems and letters almost wholly concern flowers" and
that allusions to gardens often refer to an "imaginative realm ...
wherein flowers [are] often emblems for actions and emotions". She
associates some flowers, like gentians and
anemones, with youth and humility; others
with prudence and insight. Her poems were often sent to friends
with accompanying letters and nosegays. Farr
notes that one of Dickinson's earlier poems, written about 1859,
appears to "conflate her poetry itself with the posies": "My
nosegays are for Captives – / Dim – long expectant eyes
– / Fingers denied the plucking, / Patient till Paradise
– / To such, if they sh'd whisper / Of morning and the
moor – / They bear no other errand, / And I, no other
- The Master poems. Dickinson left a large
number of poems addressed to "Signor", "Sir" and "Master", who is
characterized as Dickinson's "lover for all eternity". These
confessional poems are often "searing in their self-inquiry" and
"harrowing to the reader" and typically take their metaphors from
texts and paintings of Dickinson's day. The Dickinson family
themselves believed these poems were addressed to actual
individuals but this view is frequently rejected by scholars. Farr,
for example, contends that the Master is an unattainable composite
figure, "human, with specific characteristics, but godlike" and
speculates that Master may be a "kind of Christian muse".
- Morbidity. Dickinson's poems reflect her
"early and lifelong fascination" with illness, dying and death.
Perhaps surprisingly for a New England spinster, her poems allude
to death by many methods: "crucifixion, drowning, hanging,
suffocation, freezing, premature burial, shooting, stabbing and
guillotinage". She reserved her sharpest insights into the "death
blow aimed by God" and the "funeral in the brain", often reinforced
by images of thirst and starvation. Dickinson scholar Vivian Pollak
considers these references an autobiographical reflection of
Dickinson's "thirsting-starving persona", an outward expression of
her needy self-image as small, thin and frail. Dickinson's most
psychologically complex poems explore the theme that the loss of
hunger for life causes the death of self and place this at "the
interface of murder and suicide".
- Gospel poems. Throughout her life, Dickinson
wrote poems reflecting a preoccupation with the teachings of Jesus
Christ and, indeed, many are addressed to him. She stresses the
Gospels' contemporary pertinence and recreates them, often with
"wit and American colloquial language". Scholar Dorothy Oberhaus
finds that the "salient feature uniting Christian poets ... is
their reverential attention to the life of Jesus Christ" and
contends that Dickinson's deep structures place her in the "poetic
tradition of Christian devotion" alongside Hopkins, Eliot and Auden. In a
Nativity poem, Dickinson combines lightness and wit to revisit an
ancient theme: "The Savior must have been / A docile Gentleman
– / To come so far so cold a Day / For little
Fellowmen / The Road to Bethlehem / Since He and I were
Boys / Was leveled, but for that twould be / A rugged
billion Miles –".
- The Undiscovered Continent. Academic Suzanne
Juhasz considers that Dickinson saw the mind and spirit as tangible
visitable places and that for much of her life she lived within
them. Often, this intensely private place is referred to as the
"undiscovered continent" and the "landscape of the spirit" and
embellished with nature imagery. At other times, the imagery is
darker and forbidding—castles or prisons, complete with corridors
and rooms—to create a dwelling place of "oneself" where one resides
with one's other selves. An example that brings together many of
these ideas is: "Me from Myself – to banish – / Had I Art
– / Impregnable my Fortress / Unto All Heart – / But
since myself—assault Me – / How have I peace / Except by
subjugating / Consciousness. / And since We're mutual
Monarch / How this be / Except by Abdication – / Me
– of Me?".
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Dickinson wrote and sent this poem ("A Route to Evanescence")
to Thomas Higginson in 1880.
The surge of posthumous publication gave Dickinson's poetry its
first public exposure. Backed by Higginson and with a favorable
notice from William Dean
, an editor of Harper's
, the poetry received mixed reviews after it was
first published in 1890. Higginson himself stated in his preface to
the first edition of Dickinson's published work that the poetry's
quality "is that of extraordinary grasp and insight". Maurice Thompson
, who was literary editor
of The Independent
for twelve years, noted in 1891 that her
poetry had "a strange mixture of rare individuality and
originality". Some critics hailed Dickinson's effort, but
disapproved of her unusual non-traditional style. Andrew Lang
, a British writer, dismissed
Dickinson's work, stating that "if poetry is to exist at all, it
really must have form and grammar, and must rhyme when it professes
to rhyme. The wisdom of the ages and the nature of man insist on so
much". Thomas Bailey Aldrich
a poet and novelist, equally dismissed Dickinson's poetic technique
in The Atlantic
in January 1892: "It is plain that Miss Dickinson
possessed an extremely unconventional and grotesque
fancy. She was deeply tinged by the
mysticism of Blake
, and strongly
influenced by the mannerism of Emerson
... But the incoherence and
formlessness of her — versicles are fatal ... an eccentric, dreamy,
half-educated recluse in an out-of-the-way New England village (or
anywhere else) cannot with impunity set at defiance the laws of
gravitation and grammar".
Critical attention to Dickinson's poetry was meager from 1897 to
the early 1920s. By the start of the 20th century, interest in her
poetry became broader in scope and some critics began to consider
Dickinson as essentially modern
than seeing Dickinson's poetic styling as a result of lack of
knowledge or skill, modern critics believed the irregularities were
consciously artistic. In a 1915 essay, Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant
the poet's inspiration "daring" and named her "one of the rarest
flowers the sterner New England land ever bore". With the growing
popularity of modernist
in the 1920s, Dickinson's failure to conform to
19th-century poetic form was no longer surprising nor distasteful
to new generations of readers. Dickinson was suddenly referred to
by various critics as a great woman poet, and a cult
following began to form. R.P.Blackmur
, in an attempt to focus and clarify
the major claims for and against the poet's greatness, wrote in a
landmark 1937 critical essay: "... she was a private poet who wrote
as indefatigably as some women cook or knit. Her gift for words and
the cultural predicament of her time drove her to poetry instead of
... She came, as Mr. Tate
says, at the right time for one kind of poetry: the poetry of
sophisticated, eccentric vision."
The second wave
created greater cultural sympathy for her
as a female poet. In the first collection of critical essays on
Dickinson from a female perspective, she is heralded as the
greatest woman poet in the English language. Biographers and
theorists of the past tended to separate Dickinson's roles as a
woman and a poet. For example, George Whicher wrote in his 1952
book This Was a Poet: A Critical Biography of Emily
, "Perhaps as a poet [Dickinson] could find the
fulfillment she had missed as a woman." Feminist criticism, on the
other hand, declares that there is a necessary and powerful
conjunction between Dickinson being a woman and a poet. Adrienne
Rich theorized in "Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson"
(1976) that Dickinson's identity as a woman poet brought her power,
making her "neither eccentric nor quaint; she was determined to
survive, to use her powers, to practice necessary economics."
Similarly, some scholars question the poet's sexuality, theorizing
that the numerous letters and poems that were dedicated to Susan
Gilbert Dickinson indicate a lesbian romance, and speculating about
how this may have influenced her poetry. Critics such as John Cody,
Lillian Faderman, Vivian R. Pollak, Paula Bennett, Judith Farr,
Ellen Louise Hart, and Martha Nell Smith have argued that Susan was
the central erotic relationship in Dickinson's life.
Emily Dickinson is now considered a powerful and persistent figure
in American culture. Although much of the early reception
concentrated on Dickinson's eccentric and secluded nature, she has
become widely acknowledged as an innovative, pre-modernist poet. As
early as 1891, William Dean Howells wrote that "If nothing else had
come out of our life but this strange poetry, we should feel that
in the work of Emily Dickinson, America, or New England rather, had
made a distinctive addition to the literature of the world, and
could not be left out of any record of it." Twentieth-century
critic Harold Bloom
has placed her
alongside Walt Whitman
, Wallace Stevens
, Robert Frost
, and Hart
as a major American poet.
Dickinson is taught in American
classes in the United
States from middle school to college. Her poetry is frequently
anthologized and has been used as texts for art songs by composers
such as Aaron Copland
, Nick Peros
and Michael Tilson
. Several schools have been established in her
name; for example, two Emily Dickinson Elementary Schools exist in
Montana, and Redmond, Washington.
A few literary journals—including
The Emily Dickinson
, the official publication of the Emily Dickinson
International Society—have been founded to examine her work. An
8-cent commemorative stamp in honor of Dickinson was issued by the
United States Postal
on August 28, 1971 as the second stamp in the "American
The Amherst Jones Library's Special Collections department has an
Emily Dickinson Collection consisting of approximately seven
thousand items, including original manuscript poems and letters,
family correspondence, scholarly articles and books, newspaper
clippings, theses, plays, photographs and contemporary artwork and
prints. The Archives and Special Collections at
College has substantial holdings of Dickinson's manuscripts
and letters as well as a lock of Dickinson's hair and the original
of the only positively identified image of the
poet.Dickinson's herbarium, which is now held in the Houghton
Library at Harvard
University, was published in 2006 as Emily Dickinson's
Herbarium by Harvard
In 1965, in recognition of Dickinson's
growing stature as a poet, the Homestead was purchased by Amherst
College. It opened to the public for tours, and also served as a
faculty residence for many years. The Emily Dickinson Museum was created in 2003 when ownership of the
Evergreens, which had been occupied by Dickinson family heirs until
1988, was transferred to the college.
- D'Arienzo (2006)
- Sources differ as to the number of poems that were published,
but most put it between seven and ten.
- McNeil (1986), 2.
- Bloom (1999), 9; Ford (1966), 122.
- Sewall (1974), 321.
- Sewall (1974), 17–18.
- Sewall (1974), 337; Wolff (1998), 19–21.
- Wolff (1998), 14.
- Wolff (1998), 36.
- Sewall (1974), 324.
- Habegger (2001), 85.
- Farr (2005), 1.
- Sewall (1974), 335.
- Wolff (1998), 45.
- Sewall (1974), 337.
- Habegger (2001), 129.
- Sewall (1974) 322.
- Johnson (1960), 302.
- Habegger (2001). 142.
- Habegger (2001), 148.
- Habegger (2001), 172.
- Wolff (1998), 77.
- Ford (1966), 55.
- Ford, 47–48.
- Habegger (2001), 168.
- Ford (1966), 37.
- Johnson (1960), 153.
- Ford (1966), 46.
- Sewall (1974), 368.
- Sewall (1974), 358.
- Habegger (2001), 211.
- Pickard (1967), 19.
- Habegger (2001), 213.
- Habegger (2001), 216.
- Sewall (1974), 401.
- Habegger (2001), 221.
- Habegger (2001), 218.
- Knapp (1989), 59.
- Ford (1966), 18.
- Sewall (1974), 683.
- Habegger (2001), 226.
- Sewall (1974), 700–701.
- Sewall (1974), 340.
- Sewall (1974), 341.
- Pickard (1967), 21.
- Martin (2002), 53.
- Habegger (2001), 338.
- Gura (2004).
- Sewall (1974), 444.
- Sewall (1974), 447.
- Habegger (2001), 330.
- Walsh (1971), 87.
- Habegger (2001). 342.
- Habegger (2001), 353.
- Sewall (1974), 463.
- Sewall (1974), 473.
- Habegger (2001), 376; McNeil (1986), 33.
- Franklin (1998), 5
- Ford (1966), 39.
- Habegger (2001), 405.
- Johnson (1960), v.
- Sewall (1974), 541.
- Habegger (2001), 453.
- Johnson (1960), vii.
- Habegger (2001), 455.
- Blake (1964), 45.
- Habegger (2001), 456.
- Sewall (1974), 554–555.
- Wolff (1998), 254.
- Wolff (1998), 258.
- Habegger (2001), 498.
- Habegger (2001), 501.
- Habegger (2001), 502.
- Johnson (1960), 123–124.
- Habegger (2001), 517.
- Habegger (2001), 516.
- Habegger (2001), 540.
- Habegger (2001), 548.
- Habegger (2001), 541.
- Habegger (2001), 547.
- Habegger (2001), 521.
- Habegger (2001), 523.
- Habegger (2001), 524.
- Habegger (2001), 154.
- Parker, G9.
- Habegger (2001), 562.
- Habegger (2001), 566.
- Habegger (2001), 569.
- Johnson (1960), 661.
- Habegger (2001: 587); Sewall (1974), 642.
- Sewall (1974), 651.
- Sewall (1974), 652.
- Habegger (2001), 592; Sewall (1974), 653.
- Habegger (2001), 591.
- Habegger (2001), 597.
- Habegger (2001), 604.
- Walsh (1971), 26.
- Habegger (2001), 612.
- Habegger (2001), 607.
- Habegger (2001), 615.
- Habegger (2001), 623.
- Habegger (2001), 625.
- Wolff (1998), 534.
- Habegger (2001), 627.
- Habegger (2001), 622.
- Wolff (1998), 535.
- Farr (2005), 3–6.
- McNeil (1986), 33.
- Habegger (2001), 389.
- Wolff (1998), 245.
- Habegger (2001), 402–403.
- Habegger (2001), 403.
- Sewall (1974), 580–583.
- Farr (1996), 3.
- Pickard (1967), xv.
- Wolff (1998), 6
- Wolff (1998), 537.
- McNeil (1986), 34; Blake (1964), 42.
- Buckingham (1989), 194.
- Martin (2002), 17.
- McNeil (1986), 35.
- Ford (1966), 68.
- Pickard (1967), 20.
- Johnson (1960), viii.
- Hecht (1996), 153–155.
- Ford (1966), 63.
- McNeil (1986), 11.
- Wolff (1998), 186.
- Ford (1966), 32.
- Crumbley (1997), 14.
- Bloom (1998), 18.
- Farr (1996), 13.
- Wolff (1998), 171.
- Farr (2005), 1–7.
- Farr (1996), 7–8.
- Pollak (1996), 62–65.
- Oberhaus (1996), 105–119
- Juhasz (1996), 130–140.
- Blake (1964), 12.
- Blake (1964), 28.
- Blake (1964), 37.
- Blake (1964), 55.
- Blake (1964), vi.
- Wells (1929), 243–259.
- Blake (1964), 89.
- Blake (1964), 202.
- Blake (1964), 223.
- Juhasz (1983), 1.
- Juhasz (1983), 9.
- Juhasz (1983), 10.
- Martin (2002), 58
- Comment (2001), 167.
- Martin (2002), 1.
- Martin (2002), 2.
- Blake (1964), 24.
Editions of poetry
- Franklin, R. W. (ed). 1999. The Poems of Emily
Dickinson. Cambridge: Belknap Press. ISBN 0674676246
- Johnson, Thomas H. (ed). 1960. The Complete Poems of Emily
Dickinson. Boston: Little, Brown & Co.
- Bianchi, Martha Dickinson. 1970. Emily Dickinson Face to
Face: Unpublished Letters with Notes and Reminiscences.
Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books.
- Blake, Caesar R. (ed). 1964. The Recognition of Emily
Dickinson: Selected Criticism Since 1890. Ed. Caesar R. Blake.
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
- Bloom, Harold. 1999. Emily
Dickinson. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House Publishers. ISBN
- Buckingham, Willis J. (ed). 1989. Emily Dickinson's
Reception in the 1890s: A Documentary History. Pittsburgh:
University of Pittsburgh Press. ISBN 0822936046.
- Comment, Kristin M. 2001. "Dickinson's Bawdy: Shakespeare and
Sexual Symbolism in Emily Dickinson's Writing to Susan Dickinson".
Legacy. 18(2). pp. 167–181.
- Crumbley, Paul. 1997. Inflections of the Pen: Dash and
Voice in Emily Dickinson. Lexington: The University Press of
Kentucky. ISBN 081311988x.
- D'Arienzo, Daria. 2006. "Looking at Emily", Amherst Magazine.
Winter 2006. Retrieved: June 23, 2009.
- Farr, Judith (ed). 1996. Emily Dickinson: A Collection of
Critical Essays. Prentice Hall International Paperback
Editions. ISBN 978-0130335241.
- Farr, Judith. 2005. The Gardens of Emily Dickinson.
Cambridge, Massachusetts & London, England: Harvard University
Press. ISBN 978-0674018297.
- Ford, Thomas W. 1966. Heaven Beguiles the Tired: Death in
the Poetry of Emily Dickinson. University of Alabama
- Franklin, R. W. 1998. The Master Letters of Emily
Dickinson. University of Massachusetts Press. ISBN
- Gura, Philip F. 2004. "How I Met and Dated Miss Emily Dickinson: An Adventure on
eBay", Common-place, The Interactive Journal of Early
American Life, Inc. 4(2). Retrieved: June 23,
- Habegger, Alfred. 2001. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The
Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Random House. ISBN
- Hecht, Anthony. 1996. "The Riddles of Emily Dickinson" in Farr
- Juhasz, Suzanne (ed). 1983. Feminist Critics Read Emily
Dickinson. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN
- Juhasz, Suzanne. 1996. "The Landscape of the Spirit" in Farr
- Knapp, Bettina L. 1989. Emily Dickinson. New York:
- Martin, Wendy (ed). 2002. The Cambridge Companion to Emily
Dickinson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN
- McNeil, Helen. 1986. Emily Dickinson. London: Virago
Press. ISBN 0394747666
- Oberhaus, Dorothy Huff. 1996. " 'Tender pioneer': Emily
Dickinson's Poems on the Life of Christ" in Farr (1996)
- Parker, Peter. 2007. "New Feet Within My Garden Go: Emily Dickinson's
Herbarium", The Daily
Telegraph, June 29, 2007. Retrieved: January 18, 2008.
- Pickard, John B. 1967. Emily Dickinson: An Introduction and
Interpretation. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
- Pollak, Vivian R. 1996. "Thirst and Starvation in Emily
Dickinson's Poetry" in Farr (1996) 62–75.
- Sewall, Richard B.. 1974.
The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Farrar, Strauss,
and Giroux. ISBN 0674530802.
- Smith, Martha Nell. 1992.
Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson. Austin, Texas:
University of Texas Press. ISBN 0292776667
- Stocks, Kenneth. 1988. Emily Dickinson and the Modern
Consciousness: A Poet of Our Time. New York: St. Martin's
- Walsh, John Evangelist. 1971. The Hidden Life of Emily
Dickinson. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Wells, Anna Mary. 1929. "Early Criticism of Emily Dickinson",
American Literature, Vol. 1, No. 3. (November, 1929).
- Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. 1998. Emily Dickinson.
Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley. ISBN 0394544188.
I taste a liquor never brewed –
From Tankards scooped in Pearl –
Not all the Frankfort Berries
Yield such an Alcohol!
I taste a liquor never brewed –
From Tankards scooped in Pearl –
Not Frankfort Berries yield the sense
Such a delirious whirl!
A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides –
You may have met Him – did you not
His notice sudden is –
A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides –
You may have met Him – did you not,
His notice sudden is.